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Liu explores ethnic identity at Asian-American event
October 13, 1998
Asian-Americans must listen up and speak up, in order to dispel the myths in popular culture, said Eric Liu, speaking during the opening ceremony of UConn's fifth annual Asian-American Heritage Celebration.
Liu, who is of Chinese descent, is a speech-writer for President Clinton, a television commentator, a Yale graduate, and author of The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker. He spoke October 1 about the paradox of individual identity versus group identity and of "embracing the in-between" of assimilation.
Although, according to Liu, assimilation involves some loss and destruction, it "embodies creation, invention, and adaptation as well," since "Identity is never a finished project."
Liu encouraged Asian-Americans to take roles such as teachers and politicians, to help "stake a claim in the public square," and to "speak up" in the media and in politics.
In light of Asian money scandals, off-color humor on television, and a fear of the rise of China, Asian-Americans dealing with suspicion and issues of loyalty need more than a single voice for a whole culture, to ensure checks and balances for coverage of Asian-Americans in politics and the media, he said.
The second stage of reinventing Asian-American identity is to listen to the ways race is talked about.
"Race is a fluid thing," said Liu, adding that America's gene pool, languages, and marriages are becoming more mixed and diversified.
"Find ways in vocabulary to reflect the fluidity and excitement of change," rather than reducing race to the "false dichotomy of black and white, right and wrong," he said. By getting rid of labels and recognizing diversity within groups, Liu said, Americans can prevent "ethnosclerosis" - a term he invented to mean "the hardening of divisions" and "solidification of racial identities."
He said we need to create new paradigms for "future conceptions of the 'in-between zone'" between black and white, native and foreign, American and non-American.
Liu described himself as an "accidental Asian," having "stumbled upon a sense of race." Growing up in upstate New York, Liu tried to distance himself from being different. He said trying not to be a stereotype is a tragedy, because it involves still being "a prisoner of stereotypes."
Visualizing his identity as a Venn diagram of fluid, overlapping circles, Liu defined one circle as being a member of his generation, one as a resident of the east coast, one as an American, an Asian, and so on.
Rather than following the false dichotomy of embracing or resisting race, he said he believes in the intrinsically American idea of self-definition, relying on a personal experience of life and of self-concept. Instead of being defined by either of two extremes, Liu said he embraces a third way, "the in-between."